out of five
: 140 mins
Beautifully directed and wonderfully acted by a terrific cast, this is a splendid return to form by Robert Altman and an early contender for one of the best films of the year.
The inspired tag line for Gosford Park reads "Tea at Four. Dinner at Eight. Murder at Midnight", which might lead one to the entirely reasonable conclusion that it is going to be one of those Agatha Christie-esque ‘murder at an English country house’-type movies. This, however, is not the case.
There is a murder, to be sure, but this is first and foremost a Robert
Altman film and as such, it is a blistering return to form and easily his best film since Short Cuts.
The plot couldn’t be simpler. A number of guests, including an American
director (Bob Balaban) and real-life matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy
Northam) gather at the estate of Lady Silvia (Scott-Thomas) and Sir William (Gambon) for a shooting weekend and one of them gets murdered.
However, Altman is much more interested in the contrast of the two very different ‘societies’ – the rich socialites upstairs and their bustling servants (who are referred to by their masters’ names) downstairs. This pays off rather nicely when the police arrive to investigate the murder and barely even bother to interview the servants.
Altman is renowned for assembling top-notch ensemble casts (Short Cuts,
Nashville, A Wedding, H.E.A.L.T.H, etc) and Gosford Park sits comfortably alongside his best work. As in those films, he also uses a multi-layered over-lapping soundtrack to excellent effect – here it has the effect of making you feel you are eavesdropping on the guests’ conversations, which also has the effect of subtly allying the audience with the servants.
The cast are uniformly terrific, with Emily Watson, Kelly MacDonald, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott-Thomas all standouts. The only potentially wrong note is Stephen Fry’s bumbling, pipe-smoking detective, who seems to have wandered in from a comedy sketch, but at least his character fits the conventions of the murder-at-big-house "thriller".
Similarly, Ryan Phillippe’s dodgy Scottish accent may raise a few eyebrows, but the script draws attention to it too and it’s played for laughs.
This is a film packed with delightful moments. Highlights include the scenes between Emily Watson and Kelly MacDonald, Scott-Thomas’ scenes with Phillippe ("I’m going to be wide-awake and very bored at say one a.m…"), Richard E. Grant spilling coffee in Phillippe’s lap (Grant is used sparingly but brilliantly – you can feel his character seething in the background), any scene with Maggie Smith (scene-stealer extraordinaire) and the lovely scenes with the servants listening to Novello sing and play the piano – Northam is also excellent and apparently wasn’t dubbed for the singing.
In short, Gosford Park is the first genuine cinematic delight of the new year, so enjoyable that its two-hours-plus running time zips past in no time at all. Frankly, if Altman isn’t nominated for Best Director at this year’s Oscars, a great injustice will have been done. Highly recommended.